STILLWATER — Tom Thiets cherishes a letter he received from an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Bayport.  

The note described the man’s reaction to participating in a 2013 charity event in which 120 maximum security offenders packed more than 15,000 meals for local food shelves.

“I walked away from that event with a profound and revitalized sense of purpose,” the letter read. “It had been a long time since I had been able to feel that way. Helping others outside these walls that confine me falls squarely into the character of who I am.”

The program called Meals From the Heart is a joint effort between Stillwater’s Trinity Lutheran Church and a local mission organization founded by Thiets called Mano Amiga. It’s similar to the larger organization Feed My Starving Children in that it gathers volunteers together to assemble ingredients including rice, soy protein, freeze-dried mixed vegetables, vitamins and minerals and flavor mix into nutritious and easy-to-distribute meals for the hungry.

Instead of being shipped overseas, the multiple bags are then distributed through church partnerships in St. Paul and Minneapolis and local food banks, as well as 60 food outreaches every month through North Branch food bank Ruby’s Pantry.

Mano Amiga facilitates the planning, provides ingredients and packing equipment, trains team leaders and supervises the distribution.

The program as a whole is funded by donations from churches, individuals, corporations and civic organizations. In the past eight years, it has provided five million meals — some 350,000 packed behind bars, where its referred to as the “Serving Beyond the Bars” ministry.  

“What really strikes home with the ministry is that it works on all levels — for the offenders, the DOC staff, the volunteer leaders and the communities,” said Thiets. “This ministry affords an opportunity for the incarcerated to take positive steps towards restoring the damage they created by helping to feed the hungry. At every event we have offenders share that the concept of being a volunteer was not part of their upbringing, and through this experience they are reaching out to their families and encouraging their children to volunteer.”

The process also allows DOC staff and offenders to engage each other from another perspective, he said.

Looking back

For years prior to the prison effort, Thiets, who is missions director at Trinity, organized an annual community meal packing event hosted by Andersen Corp.

The idea to involve prisoners in the effort occurred to him in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2013 he found the connections needed to sell the idea to corrections staff.

“They were very cautious,” he remembered. “They told me of those eligible to participate to expect maybe 100 guys, which would probably be down to 50 on the day of the event. Some would be ruled out because of behavior issues, and we wouldn’t know how well they’re going to engage.

“They posted signup sheets the week before the event and they filled up in less than 5 minutes. We ended up with 120 offenders, all fully engaged.”

Since the inaugural 2013 event, meal packing events have taken place at correctional facilities in Stillwater, Oak Park Heights, Faribault, Lino Lakes and Shakopee and were scheduled at press time for St. Cloud, Moose Lake, Rice Lake, Togo and Red Wing.

Lino Lakes holds the record with just more than 97,200 meals packed.

“These types of programs are important for restorative justice efforts and the rehabilitation of offenders,” said MCF-Lino Lakes Warden Vicki Janssen. “Offenders who take part in programs such as this food packaging event not only learn valuable teamwork and time management skills, but it allows them to assist staff members in a common goal of giving back to the community.”

Each event usually involves about 175 inmates, 15 staff and a leadership team of about eight volunteers.

Thiets is looking for more partnerships with local churches that have started or want to start prison ministries. He praised the dedicated volunteer base for the program’s success,  including Trinity members Chuck Newman and Joe Capaul and Mano Amiga board members.

The five-year plan for the program may unfold naturally: people in other states are asking questions about bringing similar programs to correctional facilities across the nation, he noted.

“While this ministry opens a door for the offenders to offer restitution to our community, it also allows members of the community to serve beyond the bars in a facility they typically drive past without much thought about the offenders inside,” he wrote in a Trinity newsletter.

Inmates and their families convey powerful messages about the impacts of the program.

The mother of one participating inmate shared that in 20 years of incarceration, her son obtained a degree in religious studies and a master’s in business, but still finds it difficult to remain positive.

“One feels lost to the world, or, more accurately, forgotten,” she wrote. “We all accept that it is part of the price he must pay for his poor decisions and actions, but as a mom it just breaks my heart to imagine he is forgotten.

“The act of recognition of these men as having value from people outside the prison has had a powerful effect on these guys. It gives them hope that maybe someday they can be forgiven and accepted by society even though most will never re-enter a life beyond the bars. It has tremendous meaning in their lives.”

After participating in the meal packing, the inmate himself related what a privilege it was to work with community members.

“They all gave us such respect,” he reportedly said. “They treated us as men. As equals.”

For more information on the program, access www.manoamiga.net.

—Michelle Miron contributed to this story.

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